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131 million working days lost to sickness in 2011 - but it’s falling

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Around 131 million working days were lost to sickness absence in 2011, a new report from the Office for National Statistics shows. This was a fall of 26 per cent since 1993 (when 178 million days were lost) despite an increase in total employment from around 25 million people to about 29 million people. The amount of time lost per worker was four and a half days in 2011 down from just over seven days in 1993.

The number of working days lost through sickness remained roughly constant through the 1990s until 2003 and has fallen since then. The percentage of total hours lost fell from 2.8 per cent in 1993 to 1.8 per cent in 2011. The reason the number of days lost remained constant between 1993 and 2003, when the percentage of hours lost were falling over this period, was because there were more people entering employment during this time.

The most common reason given for sickness in 2011 was minor illnesses such as coughs, colds and flu. This type of illness tends to have short durations and the greatest number of working days lost was actually due to musculoskeletal problems (34.4 million days). This includes symptoms such as back, neck and upper limb problems. Around 27.5 million days were lost due to minor illnesses, such as coughs and colds, and 13.1 million days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety.

Women have consistently higher sickness absence rates than men but both sexes have seen a fall over the past 20 years. Men have gone from losing around 2.5 per cent of their hours due to sickness in 1993 to around 1.5 per cent in 2011. Over the same period women have seen a reduction in hours lost from 3.3 per cent to 2.3 per cent.

Self-employed people took less absence than employees (in 2011, 1.2 per cent of hours and 1.9 per cent of working hours lost respectively). Self-employed people do not generally have the same sick-leave cover as employees and would therefore have more incentive to make up any hours lost due to sickness. Also self-employed individuals are more likely to lose out financially if they lose working hours.

Workers in London had the lowest percentage of hours lost to sickness, at 1.3 per cent in 2011. The highest percentage lost was in the North East and Wales, both at 2.5 per cent. The London workforce is younger on average, has a high proportion of self-employed people and private sector workers. These characteristics are associated with below-average sickness absence rates. Wales and the North East on the other hand have on average an older workforce with above-average proportions of public sector workers, and the North East has by far the highest proportion of employees. These characteristics are associated with higher than average sickness absence rates.

People are generally more likely to develop health problems at older ages, and sickness absence rates also increase with age. For workers aged 16 to 34, around 1.5 per cent of hours were lost to sickness in 2011 compared with around 2.5 per cent for workers aged 50 to 64. Workers aged 65 or over lost a lower percentage of hours to sickness because those with health problems are more likely to have left the labour market.

The percentage of hours lost to sickness in the private sector is lower than in the public sector, at 1.6 per cent and 2.6 per cent respectively. There are a number of things to consider when interpreting these differences, such as:

• There are differences in the types of jobs between the two sectors and some occupations have higher likelihoods of sickness than others.
• On average, women have more sickness absence than men and the public sector employs a higher proportion of female workers.
• Individuals within the private sector are also more likely to not be paid for a spell of sickness than individuals within the public sector.

Source: ONS

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